CAMP RAMADI, AR RAMADI, Iraq -- Seaman Joseph O. Fernandez was a foreigner serving in the U.S. Navy, but that changed this past July.
Fernandez, a hospital corpsman who’s currently deployed to the Al Anbar capital with 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, officially became a U.S. citizen, July 25, during a ceremony at Camp Victory, Baghdad.
“It was awesome,” the 25-year-old Filipino said of earning his American citizenship. “I was sworn in, and I got a flag and a certificate,” he proudly proclaimed. “I didn’t expect that I would become a (U.S.) citizen here in Iraq.”
What Fernandez called a once in a lifetime experience was made even more special due to the particular building where the ceremony was held.
“I became a citizen in Saddam Hussein’s palace,” he said. “That made it very special because not many people get to do that.”
Growing up in Las Pinas City, Fernandez had a dream of one day moving to the United States, pursuing a medical career and eventually gaining citizenship.
One year after graduating from San Beda High School there in 1997 at 17-years-old, his dreams started to become reality.
At the request of his grandmother, Eulalia Obispo, Fernandez and his family (mother, father, sister and brother) moved to San Diego, Calif. to live with her in 1998. His grandmother had immigrated to San Diego from the Philippines several years earlier.
After a year of getting settled into their new home and new country, the ambitious 18-year-old Fernandez started looking for work in the medical field. He ran into problems because he didn’t have any experience. He took a job at an electronics store, where he worked for a year and considered how to get into medicine.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 sparked Fernandez’ patriotism, and he decided to put dreams on the back burner to defend his newly adopted country.
“I talked to my uncle about the Navy,” he recalled.
Fernandez’s uncle, George Obispo, retired from the Navy as a senior chief petty officer after 21-years of service.
“I wasn’t a citizen,” said Fernandez, “but that didn’t matter to me. “I wanted to join and serve for the U.S.”
He joined the Navy reserves in 2003, served for one year, and later went active duty.
“I liked the Navy and decided to go full time,” he said. “Plus, I could get into the medical field.”
Fernandez attended corpsman and field medical service school and was attached to Camp Pendleton, Calif., -based 1st Battalion, 5th Marines last October when the unit was gearing up to deploy to Ar Ramadi for their third OIF deployment.
With help from the senior enlisted Sailor with the infantry battalion, Chief Petty Officer Rodney J. Lewis, Fernandez submitted a citizenship package to Department of Defense immigration officials before leaving.
Fernandez said he never expected his package to be accepted while deployed, but three months in he got surprising news.
“One day out of blue Chief approached me and said I was going to Baghdad to become a U.S. citizen,” he said. “I was very happy.”
“I was proud that he got his citizenship,” said the 34-year-old from Baton Rouge, La., and senior medical department representative for 1st Battalion, 5th Marines’ Battalion Aid Station. “He’s a super guy. He’s the kind of guy you tell to do something once and it’s done. He took the initiative to get his citizenship and it paid off. I’m glad he got it.”
Fernandez phoned home from Baghdad to his mother and father, Clyde and Susan to tell them the good news.
“They were very excited.”
Fernandez enjoys being a corpsman because he likes “helping Marines,” he said. “I like the camaraderie, and the Marines like me because I can take care of them.”
Fernandez said he feels at home working alongside Marines and plans on making a career out of the Navy.
“I’m considering becoming an officer.”